Close your eyes and think about a place that is special to you or left a lasting impression. You may not be able to name every feature, but you can describe the scene, what happened there, and how it made you feel. That’s because great places are more than just cool plan features: they’re a collision of different people, behaviors, feelings, and desires coming together and giving a space a life of its own. We may not always be able to put a finger on it, but those places exude style and story – the fodder for making powerful memories.

So why isn’t more placemaking based on a deeper understanding of people and not just how they might use a space, but how they will experience it? After all, this type of thinking is more closely connected to our daily lives and how we perceive the world daily. Can we bring this same level of observation and perception into the design process to engineer the right value for our users instead of value engineering the plan features?

When we look beyond face-value features into the holistic user experience, we can approach visioning and design from a more empathetic perspective of what our target users need rather than serving our personal biases and desires.

We seek to understand: Whom are we designing for? How can they grow with us? What experiences are they currently spending time in? What’s already here and can be reimagined or reinvented to serve them? What new possibilities should we explore to improve their quality of life while they’re with us?

When it comes to creating impactful user experiences, people are the root of all insights and possibilities. By focusing our strategic efforts on learning about and documenting the human condition – joys, rituals, pains, perceptions, dreams – we can begin to identify improvements that serve their needs and guide smarter design decisions.

On a recent public project, RVi was tasked with exploring creative new ways to improve the aesthetics and functionality of the highly trafficked Youngfield Street commercial corridor in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. To gain a better understanding of the opportunity, the team conducted a visioning survey and collaborative user experience workshop with our consultant teams and partners in the city.

In the workshop, we discussed opportunities, challenges, design ideas, and existing efforts in the community before exploring the needs of more than 20 different daily users of the area. From there, we prioritized the needs from functional requirements (most important) to aesthetic expression (least important): the functional requirements became design directives, and expression ideas were developed as visual boards for additional community feedback.

As community feedback is collected, the prevailing themes will inform a concept story that guides experiential design in five key areas along the corridor. Streetscape design will reflect the needs and priorities established for each area’s top users, as well as creative applications that express the top aesthetic themes – all backed by data based on the needs of our local audience and city stakeholders.

Although this was a public process with required community engagement, this process applies to all types of projects beyond the public realm. This innovation through empathy creates deeper personalization of the project context. It builds understanding through storytelling – a powerful approach to help private developers and builders improve perceived project value and reception by the city during planning and entitlement processes.